Saturday, December 26, 2009

Oh wait, I'm not done yet!

Hello again friends. I’ve been back on the main land for almost two weeks now but I need to fill you in on the end of my journey. I had great plans of spending the final crossing by writing stories and posting photos of shipboard life along the way but work actually got in the way. So, lets review. We had just left Kobe and our ten-day crossing to Hawaii started off nicely.

We celebrated Thanksgiving with a better that usual meal and some of us dressed up a bit to enjoy dinner with our shipboard family. Thanksgiving dinner with GH and AH

We crossed the International Date Line on the 28th so we had 2 Saturdays – it just seemed like another day really. Some students and staff joked about wearing the same clothes and having the same meals to have a true groundhog day. One of the big responsibilities of one of my co-workers was the SAS annual fundraising drive and auction that occurred on the 2nd 28th. It was a great success with 100% participation and nearly $43,000.00 raised from the shipboard community.

The book used for the class I became a TA for.

I forget if I have mentioned it along the way but as the academic support Living Learning Coordinator I was asked to facilitate review sessions for the global studies class halfway through the semester. Well during this final crossing I was asked by the academic dean to create a study guide for the final. I’ll be the first to admit my job was really great and pretty easy – until then. I asked for support in creating the study-guide. As I did not receive notes from the professor, they were all just what I took from the lecture. I was worried about providing wrong information or telling students to study info that would not be covered. While I have always had a flair for the dramatic I’ll spare you the back and forth with my supervisor and the academic dean. I had a few stressful days but the students seemed to appreciate it and the over all grades turned out better than the midterm. By the time we arrived to Hawaii the exam was over and I was ready for a few days of rest, relaxation and sunshine.

We arrived in Honolulu very early on December 4th so early that my supervisor told us to be ready to work at 6am. Ouch. Along the journey we had heard conflicting things about our arrival to Hawaii, it was after all our return to US soil for the first time. At one point we were all prepared to go through customs and immigration and then have a quick and easy arrival to San Diego. In the end we just had to deal with immigration in Honolulu- customs would happen in San Diego after all. The immigration officials came on board and as we had done many times before, facilitated the process of every passenger coming through the faculty staff lounge and getting their passport stamped. Finally the ship was cleared and we were off on our way. I joined HM from the field office and PL one of the ship psychologists for a hike up Diamond Head.
I love PL- she is amazing we had great conversation as we made our way up the trail. From there we got lunch and then spent a few hours at the beach in Waikiki where AB joined us as well. I had to get back for duty that night and I was expecting the worst but hoping for the best. It all turned out great as I didn’t get a single call- I actually woke up at 8am and checked to make sure that I had not pulled my phone out of the wall when I put it closer to my bed the night before.

For our second day in Honolulu I again went back to Waikiki to get more sun. The Living Learning Team all met at Bucca DiBeppo for our final meal together before we would all part ways in San Diego. It was a great meal with plenty of laughs as has come to be expected with our group. After that it was back to the ship for re-embarkation, as we would make a short overnight journey to Hilo, Hawaii- a small city on the southern side of the big island.
Grace running through the port terminal to make sure she gets back on the ship in time.

We didn’t have to do anything for disembarkation so the morning was quick and easy. AB and I joined a SAS trip on a half-day volcano tour that I really didn’t care for. The weather was overcast and a bit on the rainy side so all I was thinking was how much I wanted to still be in Honolulu. Hilo didn’t have much to offer and it's terrible to say but I was just ready to go home at that point.

On the second day in Hilo SAS hosted the largest 5k Fun Run Hilo has ever had! The former Miss Hawaii who now works at the Mayor’s office even came to start off the run. It was a celebration of our journey and a fundraiser for the students of service program “The $100 Solution” We had a great turn out with nearly 300 members of the shipboard community registered. Being the stubborn and competitive person I am I decided not to run but to volunteer instead. I stood at the 1K point and directed the runners along the way. With the 5k over, it was time to board the ship for the last time. The LLT took our positions for one last time and welcomed students back. I told students to get a good final swipe and enjoy the long walk up the gangway stairs for the last time. Some laughed and a few even cried as they got a bit emotional as our voyage had come to an end. Terrence followed my directions and made sure to get a good final swipe in.

We had heard that a bad storm was approaching and there were rumors of being stuck in Hilo for an extra day or maybe even going up to Canada instead of San Diego. As we ate dinner the dean of students came over the ship PA system called the LLT into an emergency meeting that night to be followed by full a shipboard community meeting. The LLT gathered in one of the classrooms that is on the main hallway of the ship and to make it even better has large glass doors so everyone walking by could see us with our serious faces as Byron told us the plan. Being sworn to secrecy until the shipboard meeting we all walked out of the meeting in silence making the students near by spin with ideas of what was coming.

A short time later we all filed into the union and waited for the news. Executive Dean Nick began by confirming the weather reports saying that sailing in the next few days was in no way a safety concern but just a comfort concern. After much conversation with the ship’s Captain and the ISE main office it was determined that the best choice would be to RETURN TO HONOLULU FOR AN EXTRA DAY! It was really a great moment to see the excitement of the students and faculty and staff for that matter with the news. The academic schedule was not changed so the extra day in Honolulu still served as a study day and the first day of finals would still occur two days later.
I spent my extra day again hiking and beaching with HM and PL. I also got a GREAT plate of nachos that made up for the four chips with cheese on them that I had in Tokyo.

The LLT made our way back to the ship to welcome everyone back on board for one last time (again). Spirits were high and everyone seemed to appreciate of bonus day. Homeward bound!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The last time I had Kobe beef…

...I was in Kobe. My former supervisor at LMU who worked for Semester At Sea a few years ago would regularly share stories of her voyage. One time when a group of us were out for dinner someone ordered a Kobe beef burger, which prompted Briana to say, “The last time I have Kobe beef, I was in Kobe”. We all loved and hated her for it. Now it was my turn.

AB and I had talked for weeks about our plan to have Kobe beef in Kobe and that was the only thing on the agenda for our one day in Kobe. We asked the info desk in the port terminal for any suggestions but she was not too helpful, so we just took a chance and it paid off. We were looking at a menu in Japanese and the hostess brought out an English menu and our mind was made up. We sat down at a bar top like grill. We made our decision to share a lunch as a single lunch cost $80.00.

The chef brought out a cut of beef and with our approval began prepare it right in front of us. First he placed our plates with a small pile of pepper and salt in front of us. He began to sauté some veggies and then started to cut the beef. He cut off all the fat and put it to the side. I am always impressed watching people cook. They make it look easy and then when I even think of trying to do it myself I get overwhelmed. Thus my biggest cooking accomplishment to date is Hamburger Helper. What can I say, when you have had a university meal plan for the past 5 and a half years there is little motivation to learn how to cook. The meal was amazing and well worth the $80.00, so much so I almost considered placing another order.

AB and I left with very happy bellies and ventured off to find some gifts for her nieces back in Rhode Island and as so many times before on this journey, a local helped us out and took us to just the right place. With gifts in hand we continued to walk through the shops where I loved the clothes and the style of everything. Japan is a very formal culture. Even on the weekend most of the people walking around were very well dressed, the men in suits and the women also in stylish business wear. Of course everything I looked at was far beyond my price range but it made me wish. If I ever become insanely wealthy I will come to Japan and buy an entirely new wardrobe.

AB and I then dragged our heals getting back to the ship to work our re-embarkation shifts knowing that we had 10 days at sea ahead of us. Thanksgiving on the ship, crossing the international date line where we went from being 19 hours ahead of LA time to having two Saturday November 28th and then behind LA by 5 hours, and the beginning of student final exams. The longest crossing of the voyage marked the final push but more on that later.

Tokyo days 2 and 3

After 2 hours of sleep following my epic night out I was running on empty but ready to continue exploring with the group for a few hours. We eventually got ready and AH and I made our second night reservations at the same hostel as the rest of the group would be leaving for Kobe that evening. We all went to breakfast and continued our adventure. By this point we had gotten pretty good with the train system and made our way to Tokyo Tower for a bit before ED and AB had to take off for Kobe.

AH knew that I was struggling so we went back to our hostel and I took a nap while she spent some time catching up on e-mails. Feeling refreshed we walked through town again and struggled to find a place for dinner and after a few laps finally found a place that did little more than serve a purpose of nourishment. The conversation with AH however made up for the poor service and annoyance of the others around us. Afterwards we continued our strolling and talking about life, love and the pursuit of happiness.

Back to the hostel I had one hell of a time falling asleep. Being as tired as I was I should have passed out the second my head hit the pillow but I could not shut off my head. Maybe it was the two classes of soda I had with dinner but I was convinced that it was my lack of comfort being in a hostel room with other people. I wish I had taken a photo of the room but I didn’t so I’ll do my best to explain the situation to you.

We were in a co-ed 8-bed room, 4 sets of bunk beds. The other people in the room seemed harmless enough, a father/son pair, two Asian people, a random old guy, and a collage age kid. AH was in the top bunk against the wall and I was in the top bunk next to her in between another bunk. There I was, tossing and turning, turning on my ipod (I usually have music on when I fall asleep) thinking it would help. Nope. I just felt really exposed and vulnerable like one of these random people could attack at any second and I had no defense. I was debating getting out of bed, telling AH that we were leaving and that I would pay for a hotel room. I was driving myself crazy. I am laughing at myself now as I write this but it took me what felt like hours to fall asleep. Thankfully once I did fall asleep I slept very well. AH however was having a battle with the other woman in the room over the heater. She told me that every hour or so the woman turn the heat down, then AH would get really cold and turn the heat back up. She said this battle went on all night.

The next morning I was ready to leave the hostel, glad that I have now had the experience and that I don’t need to again. It was a wonderful day so AH and I made our way to the Emperor’s Palace.

I laughed out loud when I read this sign, then kept moving.

'Other people's' are my favorite type of kid.

We took our time walking around, looking at the exhibits, people watching and taking in the city.
With some time to kill before our train to Kobe we explored a mall as AH wanted to buy a book the 3+ hour ride. The mall was all decorated for Christmas and it put me in the spirit so that when we got back to the ship I put a few of my Christmas albums back on my ipod and they have been in heavy rotation ever sense.

The Shinkansen (bullet train) was amazing. It was roomy, comfortable and obviously traveled very quickly. I did some journaling and slept for a good portion of the journey. Like China, the ship changed ports while we traveled. We left it in Yokohama but while we were in Tokyo the ship sailed to Kobe. AH and I found our way to the ship and like every other trip, there was a sense of relief as we saw the ship come into view as our train arrived at the port station. I spent the rest of the evening catching up with ED and AB and making plans to enjoy some Kobe beef the next day.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tokyo Day 1

On November 21st I packed my bag, met ED and we took the train to Tokyo. MacG had made everyone a great packet with our hostel reservations, highlighted maps and directions to the hostel so we felt confident in our ability to find our way. The rest of the group were on a SAS trip that day and would join us later that evening in Tokyo, so it was just ED and I for the day. We got to the train and stood in our line – the Japanese love keeping things in a nice neat order – and waited for the train. It wasn’t long before I heard the pleasant sounds of birds chirping overhead. After a while I realized that the birds I was hearing was actually a speaker with bird noises serving as a bird deterrent. Those clever Japanese!

Anyway- we made it to Tokyo and even with MacG's directions we some how seemed to get a bit lost but eventually figured it out- I was proud of us. We made it to our hostel where we had a 6 person private room for our group, dropped off our bags and went back out to explore. Walking through the busy streets of vendors and tour groups we happened to run into a former student of ED's from when he worked at Boston College a few years ago! She was in Japan with the JET program – an English teaching program. We sat with her and her friends for a bit while ED and she shared stories of the crazy days at BC.

ED and I had plans that night to meet another staff member who was on a SAS trip in Tokyo at his hotel and hit the town. With a bit of luck and a little help from some security guards at a construction site we finally found GH’s hotel and went to find some dinner. We tried to get something fast but the McDonalds wouldn’t take credit card so we went to TGIFridays. Fridays was a staple of my high school years and I can’t even remember that last time I had been there, so for the novelty and humor of it all I had to go. I was excited with the chance to get some nachos until they arrived. Four chips do not count as a plate of nachos. After the over priced dinner we got on the train and prepared for a long night out. The trains stop at midnight and don’t start again until 5am so we were out for the entire night.

We made the rounds of the bars, lounges and clubs where we danced the hours away. We met a few English speakers along the way who took us under their wing and showed us a good time. We met Damon, from Detroit who also came to Japan to work for the JET program 7 years ago and never left. As the night turned into day we stopped for a quick bite to eat before Damon got us back on the trains and finally around 7am we made it back to our hostel. ED and I tried our best to quietly enter the room where our travel companions were sleeping but the climbing into bunk beds proved to be a bit loud as they all woke up and we shared a brief recap of the evening before getting a few short hours of sleep.

Welcome to Japan

On November 20th the MV Explorer arrived in Yokohama, Japan! As we approached and the sun began to rise we could see Mt Fuji in the distance, it was amazing. The port terminal was beautiful, it has a large park/promenade area on the roof that seemed to be a popular running area based on the number of people we saw. We were welcomed by a group of drummers and I had to laugh at the thought of all the people still sleeping and being startled awake by all the noise.

After the disembarkation and immigration process, which the LLCs helped with of course we were finally set free around noon. A group of us had plans to go to Tokyo the next day and we would need train tickets for the trip to Kobe on the Shinkansen (the bullet train) so the group of us went to the station to buy our tickets. With tickets purchased our group split up – the Beckers went to the Ramen Noodle museum (yes, really) AB and I went looking for an ATM that we could use to no avail. With our cranky pants on we needed something to cheer us up and Starbucks served the purpose.

With our coffee in hand set our sights on the big Ferris wheel that could be seen from the ship. On the way we walked through a mall and I saw a sweatshirt that caught my eye.
I couldn’t believe it – Walled Lake! That is where I went to high school back in Michigan. If the sweatshirt didn’t cost $90.00 I would have considered buying it but instead I just have photos. Cue tangent - Japan over all is very expensive. We had been told this as we approached Japan but I figured, ‘eh, I live in Los Angeles, everything is expensive, how bad can it be?’ It was bad. I would say in general things were nearly double the price in some stores. Ok, end of tangent.

AB and I finally made it to the amusement park area we enjoyed watching the nearly empty park rides zip along their tracks and decided not to pay the $7.00 to ride the Ferris wheel.
We walked along the water back to the ship and enjoyed the skyline light up all around us.
We had been invited by our assistant dean of students and good friend ED to go out dinner with the filed office coordinator and the two of the agents from the tour company that SAS worked with.

I have no idea where they took us but it was amazing. We had our own private room, which I guess is pretty common. The two agents asked what we liked and more importantly what we didn’t like and the next thing we knew food was coming in, plate after plate and beverages glass after glass. I continued my efforts at eating with chopsticks and did quite well considering When the plates of sushi came out I challenged myself and moved past the California roll but not much and had two tuna rolls. At that point I called it good. The two girls showed us a great time and thankfully got us back to the train station and even went all the way back to the ship with us as their kind hospitality put us in a condition less than ideal to try and figure out a tricky subway map in a different language.

One day in Shanghai

The view from the ship when we arrived to Shanghai!

While I hiked the great wall the ship made the short journey from Hong Kong to Shanghai- so when we arrived back to the ship we arrived to our new home for the next day. I spent my last day exploring with the Beckers and AB. It was a rainy Monday and the museum we wanted to go to was closed, so we went to Starbucks and McDonalds. After that we continued to walk around and found ourselves in a crazy four floor market place with hundreds of booths selling everything and anything; underwear, luggage, Christmas decorations, hair extensions, belts, tea sets… We made no purchases and continued our aimless walking. We came across a Dunkin Donuts and we took the opportunity to take sanctuary from the rain.

After drying off a bit and warming up we braved the elements again and went underground to catch the train to the other side of the river and explore the down town area. We found ourselves at the base of the pearl but choose not to go up to the top. Somewhere in our journeying we got word via AB’s blackberry e-mail that due to rough seas ahead the captain had pushed our on ship time from 6pm that evening to noon the following day – YAHOO! AB and I tried to walk to the one of the tallest buildings in the world called the ‘bottle opener’ because of the cut out on the top floors that resembles a bottle opener but as the city was TORN UP by construction preparing for the world expo next May we found ourselves lost in a maze of dead ends and almost but not quite there’s and as the rain picked up I decided to call it a day and we went back to the ship. I eventually went back out with the Beckers to spend the last of my Chinese currency on snacks and a few odds and ends. We set sail the following afternoon and headed to Yokohama, Japan.
I saw this in a sign shop window. My response "No thanks, I've got plenty"

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sorry China, I'm cold.

After our days on the Great Wall, we made it to Beijing. We payed a very quick visit, so quick it was really more of a drive by of two of the Olympic sites - The Birds Nest and the Cube. We did not have time to go into either and most of our group just went to McDonald's anyway. It was much colder in Beijing than it was on the wall, so after the long day on the wall I just wanted to get warm and take a shower. I did a quick look at the buildings and got back on the bus. I later learned from people on other trips who were able to go into the Birds Nest, that the Cube - where the swimming and diving events were held is being turned into a water park!

The next day we had a visit to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City but again it was SO AMAZINGLY cold that we rushed through it. As a staff member I was trying to be good and not complain but I was ready to get back on the bus and just head to the airport and return to the ship. Maybe I can come back to China some day and if so, I'll do it in the summer. Sorry China. Don't let that big goofy smile fool you, I was pretty miserable